The reality meets the dream

Bernard Zissman has made ingenious use of time travel to recount Zionist history, using the science fiction approach.

modern Herzl 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
modern Herzl 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Herzl's Journey By Bernard Zissman Devora Publishing 230 pages; $24.95 Time travel is a standard element in science fiction. Writers in the field include Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Jules Verne and Ray Bradbury. Whether they would recognize Sir Bernard Zissman, former lord mayor of Birmingham, England, as one of them is an open question. The history of Zionism is hardly the kind of topic that would engage established science fiction authors. However, Zissman has made ingenious use of time travel to recount Zionist history, using the science fiction approach and staking out a claim for his inclusion in the ranks of accomplished science fiction writers. After visiting Herzl's tomb in Jerusalem, Zissman wishes that he could have known Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism. Thus begins his journey back in time to 1890 when Herzl was 30 years old. For the next 14 years, Zissman meets Herzl a dozen times in Europe, Turkey and Palestine. Each visit includes a lengthy conversation in which Herzl describes his activities as he struggled to establish a Jewish national home. The second part of the book, which Zissman calls "The Reality," as contrasted with the first section which he labels "The Dream," is set mostly in modern times with Herzl traveling forward in years to meet Zissman, usually in Israel. In the initial visit, Zissman comes to Herzl's Vienna home and learns about his early life during which his Jewish identification was weak. However, the anti-Semitism he encountered led him to realize that he could not deny his Jewish heritage. Herzl takes Zissman on a tour of Vienna, pointing out such Jewish luminaries as Sigmund Freud and Martin Buber. A year and a half later, they meet briefly in Paris but their visit is cut short because Herzl has to return to Vienna since his wife is ill. Three years pass before they get together again, also in Paris where Herzl was working as a journalist. This is the time of the Dreyfus affair that reinforced Herzl's concern about anti-Semitism and led to his conviction that Jews needed a land of their own. Subsequent sessions take place in London, Vienna, Basel, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. Herzl describes his numerous trips and interviews with influential leaders to win support for a Jewish homeland. A chapter is devoted to the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland that Zissman attends and hears Herzl's claim that "here in Basel, I founded the Jewish state." Before this section of the book ends with Herzl's death in 1904, he and Zissman discuss the possibility of a Jewish homeland in Uganda which the British recommended and which Herzl saw as a temporary possibility. The second section of the book begins in Vienna in 2005 where Herzl meets Zissman and asks him to tell what happened in the hundred years since they were last together. Modern Jewish history is described as the two of them meet, mostly in Israel. In the end, Zissman muses about his imaginary sessions with Herzl and the inspiration they brought to him. He concludes with the hope that Herzl's dream of an ideal Jewish state living alongside of a state of New Palestine will eventually come to fruition. This book is a lucid and uncomplicated account of Theodor Herzl's life and his far-reaching contribution to the establishment of Israel. It is an imaginative presentation that is easy to read and that serves as a useful introduction to Herzl and Zionism. The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.